The Book Shelf: Karl Mannheim and the Sociology of Knowledge
Do we, in some way, become part of the reinforcing "group" for the powerful and influential leaders with whom we work? How do we remain "objective" in our perspectives regarding the world of our clients?
Reviewer: William Bergquist, Ph.D.
Karl Mannheim wrote many books that are aligned with a sub-discipline of sociology, called the sociology of knowledge. While his books are certainly not required reading for all professional coaches, there should at least be some awareness of the challenges associated with Mannheim’s work and this sub-discipline of sociology. A few of the statements made in one of his books, Ideology and Utopia, are reviewed here, so that the reader considers his or her perspectives when reflecting on their own coaching practices
Mannheim was aligned with what sometimes is known as the Max Weber school of social analysis. Weber and Mannheim were early and mid-20th Century German social theorists who were critical of both American behaviorism and the Marxist perspective on society and culture. Even though they were anti-communist, Weber and Mannheim were certainly not welcomed by the emerging German leaders of their time. While Weber died prior to the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, Mannhaim fled Germany in 1933 and went to England where he became a professor of sociology at the prominent London School of Economics.
Mannheim begins his analysis by noting that: “. . . the principal thesis of the sociology of knowledge is that there are modes of thought which cannot be adequently understood as long as their social origins are obsured.” (Mannheim, 1936, p. 2) It is important for us to recognize that the way in which we frame the issues we are facing is not unique to us (even if we consider ourselves to be “innovative”); rather our modes of thought are fashioned in powerful (and often unacknowledged) ways by the social system in which we operate. As coaches, it is particularly important that we challenge our clients when they ignore the influence that their own social context and culture has on the way they conceive their life and work. This is particularly the case when they serve as leaders of an organization and when their own organization is facing major challenges and the prospect of change. Under these conditions of anxiety, the leader is particularly vulnerable to the projections of those seeking his or her leadership. What the followers are projecting on the leader are modes of thought and untested assumptions about the organization (for example, about its strengths and weaknesses). As a coach to leaders faced with change and anxiety, we should not just challenge the leader’s own assumptions, but also help our client identify the modes of thought other members of the organization are pushing for (explicitly or implicity) and, as Mannheim notes, the social origins of these modes.